Truants and Cuckolds

Aaron Matz

In The Devil in the Flesh, Raymond Radiguet’s novel of 1923, there are no machine guns, no trenches, no clumsy helmets or Five-Nines. At one point there’s some fighting several kilometres away, but the sound of artillery fire is audible only briefly. All the totems of First World War literature are absent, and yet the most interesting thing about the book is that it is even so a story about the war. The novel begins around 1914 and ends a few pages after the ringing of the armistice bells in 1918. There are no scenes of warfare because it’s a story about the home front, but even stories about the home front tend to include some ever present reminder of war, or some direct incursion: in French fiction, most prominently, Vercors’s Le Silence de la mer, in which a German officer is stationed in a French house, or in English fiction the epilogue of Brideshead Revisited, in which Charles Ryder is billeted back at Brideshead after it has been requisitioned by the army. Radiguet is less direct, and more perverse, in his representation of war. The Devil in the Flesh isn’t conventionally anti-war, or even very concerned about the parties fighting the war: it is wholly irreverent about what actually happens in wartime.

What happens is this: while the soldiers are off fighting at the front, adolescent boys are having sex with their wives. Radiguet’s novel is narrated by an unnamed 16-year-old boy who has an affair, in the last year of the war, with an 18-year-old married woman called Marthe. It’s the war that makes the affair possible – even encourages it. By rule or convention, boys are made into men in wartime by witnessing the horror of slaughter. In The Devil in the Flesh a boy becomes a man because somebody else is having that wartime experience somewhere in the background, while in the foreground the boy-hero is fucking – and falling in love with – that man’s wife. In Radiguet everything begins in perversity and provocation: on the first page the narrator concedes that his story will make the reader judge him harshly for his wartime behaviour, but ‘people who reproach me should try and imagine what the war was for so many young boys – a four-year-long holiday.’

The novel tells the story of the affair, which almost exactly follows the chronological arc of the war. In the Marne region just east of Paris, around 1913-14, the narrator starts playing truant from school. Through family friends he meets Marthe, who is engaged to the soldier Jacques. Marthe and Jacques marry; Jacques is sent to the front. The narrator gets more and more closely involved with Marthe as he helps her pick out the decorations for her new marital bedroom and dictates her letters to her faraway husband. They fall in love. Soon they start having regular and outstanding sex. Gradually their affair becomes obvious to everybody around them, family and strangers alike. (The ongoing cuckolding of Jacques is known to everyone except Jacques, who’s barely present in the book.)

In the novel’s most memorable scene, Marthe’s downstairs neighbours plan an afternoon party so that their guests can listen in on the noisy sex upstairs; they set the table directly beneath Marthe’s bedroom. But the hero gets advance word of the plot and decides to foil it. For the duration of the party ‘we didn’t make a sound … I could imagine the contorted expression on Madame Marin’s face, her gaze fastened on the hands of the clock, her guests’ impatience. Eventually, at about seven o’clock, the couples went home empty-handed.’ With the guests gone, and only the prurient neighbours still downstairs, the narrator seizes his opportunity:

Out of spite I let them hear what they had wanted the others to hear. Marthe was surprised at my belated passion. Unable to contain myself any longer, and at the risk of upsetting her, I told her the purpose of the reception. We both cried with laughter.

Madame Marin, who might have felt benevolent had I served her purposes, never forgave us for this catastrophe. It filled her with hate.

Radiguet doesn’t remind us that while this game is going on Jacques is probably trying to dodge shrapnel in a muddy trench. But we don’t forget that while the boys are on holiday the men – men here being only a few years older than boys – are getting massacred somewhere to the east. As D.H. Lawrence wrote in his 1920 foreword to Women in Love, ‘the bitterness of the war may be taken for granted in the characters’: Lawrence’s novel says even less about war and warfare than Radiguet’s, but both books describe worlds of sex and violence that exist in the shadow of some greater cataclysm.

As the narrator’s passion for Marthe becomes increasingly compulsive (his obsession is ‘nothing but lasciviousness … my sensual pleasure depended on habit’), Marthe gets pregnant. The narrator’s response is subtly ambivalent. He feels unexpected affection for his future child, but he is disturbed by the fact that he too is a child (throughout the novel he describes what he does as ‘childish’). And he’s uneasy about making his lover physically ‘grotesque’: ‘I regarded myself as a barbarian for having impaired Marthe’s gracefulness.’ The baby is born early, and because Jacques had been home on leave there are grounds for thinking the narrator may not be the father, but it soon becomes clear that he is. The war ends and Jacques comes home. Marthe dies shortly after giving birth. She has named the newborn after the narrator – we never learn the name – and so when she dies with the name on her lips Jacques, who will be raising the boy, thinks she’s talking about the baby. The narrator knows better. The novel ends.

Radiguet has an unusually complex vision of childhood, children and the begetting of children. Children are those left behind in wartime: they fill the void left by men, so children produce more children. Another idea that runs through the novel is that being a child – in particular an adolescent – is above all an experience of ‘playing truant’. ‘Marthe,’ the narrator says, ‘was simply my excuse for playing truant.’ The theme haunts the book. Other novels have been interested in the idea of teenage truancy as a means of escape from the corruption of authority, or simply as a kind of freedom, but Radiguet makes the experience of skipping school more like a condition than a mere escapade or fantasy. Truancy is a state of being removed from the main action but also a way of creating a different kind of action: it’s being in the wrong place and the right place at the same time. It means both doing nothing – not going to school, not serving in war – and at the same time doing something: having sex and falling in love, becoming the unexpected author of one’s own life. Playing truant is not work but it’s not leisure either: it’s the basis for a state of anxiety. It leads the narrator out of childhood, but what it leads him into is less clear, even at the end of the novel: truancy is a permanent state of being marginal or adrift.

Radiguet was only twenty when the book was published. He wrote it as a teenager and much of the plot came from his own experience: he had had an affair with a woman married to a soldier at the front when he was 14. But the legend that surrounded him as a child author derives even more from his brief, spectacular life in the world of letters than from the experience that may have inspired The Devil in the Flesh. At 15 he began hanging around artistic circles in Paris, and soon met Cocteau. Cocteau taught him to discipline himself, to stop carousing and finish his manuscript; he became Radiguet’s protector and promoter. The two became lovers and between 1920 and 1923 – productive years for them both – travelled together in an increasingly volatile relationship. The echo of Rimbaud and Verlaine is unmistakable, and has often been alluded to. Thanks to Cocteau, Radiguet got embroiled in the intimacies and rivalries of the Paris avant-garde.

The Devil in the Flesh was a huge and controversial success when it was released, with Radiguet’s publisher, Grasset, mounting a vigorous publicity campaign that wouldn’t surprise us today but which in 1923 struck people as being unseemly. The novel’s unpatriotic subject didn’t harm the book’s sales and only contributed to the author’s celebrity. But within months Radiguet was dead from typhoid, apparently after eating contaminated oysters. His second novel, Count d’Orgel’s Ball, was published posthumously in 1924 – he would have been 21.[*]

In tone and setting at least, Radiguet’s second novel seems quite different from the first. A third-person narrative, it tells the story of a young man called François who enters the highly refined world of the Count d’Orgel and his beautiful young wife, Mahaut. Radiguet is hardly less interested in François’s friendship with the count than he is in his growing love for Mahaut. As potential cuckold, the count is nothing like the hapless Jacques of The Devil in the Flesh: indeed the novel is much taken up with the complex relationship between husband and wife.

Adultery here is only ever an idea or a possibility – never a consummation. This essential difference between the two novels isn’t merely a matter of plot: it says a lot about the range of Radiguet’s imagination, in a career that lasted only a few years. There are certain obvious parallels between the two stories, especially the central idea of the love between a young hero (François is twenty) and a slightly older married woman. But the psychological shifts and delicate verbal exchanges of the second novel are a long way from the busy fornication of the first. At the end of the novel Mahaut confesses her love for François, though never directly to him: first she tells his mother, then, in the final scene, she makes her confession to the count.

Between the two confessions Radiguet stages a weird and rather complicated scene he calls an ‘apotheosis’. At a party chez d’Orgel – not the eponymous ball, which never takes place – the count, partial to masquerades and disguises, puts on a Tyrolean hat and does a silly dance. He looks ridiculous and undignified. Mahaut is ‘appalled’ by her husband’s ‘childish foolishness’. For the countess the situation presents a terrible quandary: to show embarrassment would confirm that she shares François’s disdain for the count’s behaviour, and that would amount to a tacit act of infidelity. So instead she sacrifices herself by joining in with her husband: she stands up, walks towards the count, and pokes the hat as if to correct the way he’s wearing it, thereby involving herself in his performance. ‘It would be hard,’ Mahaut thinks to herself before nearly fainting, ‘to despise more gallantly.’ A few pages later, when she and the count are alone, she tells him of her love for François. The count, ‘unable to perceive the reality of anything but what took place in public’, seems bewildered. The novel closes with the count ordering his wife to go to sleep: ‘I command it.’

In place of consummation, then, Radiguet’s second novel offers an essential chasteness. In place of rowdily defiant copulation, a Tyrolean hat. And in place of scenes of the lower middle class in wartime, a representation of aristocracy that brings Proust to mind. Cocteau wrote in his diary that the hat scene was better than Proust’s ‘countless pages about society people’. But then again Cocteau believed Count d’Orgel’s Ball to be the finer of Radiguet’s two novels, and few readers would agree. Nor would many readers accept Radiguet’s own claim that his second novel was ‘a chaste love novel as scabrous as the least chaste’ (the comparison is clearly to The Devil in the Flesh). In Count d’Orgel’s Ball the cruelty lurks beneath infatuation, but the novel is too invested in purity and honour to be scabrous. As François starts getting enmeshed in the world of the count and countess, Radiguet writes: ‘The relationship between these three people kept evolving on an unusually lofty level.’ There’s an irony about loftiness in Count d’Orgel’s Ball – according to Radiguet, it can lapse into ‘banality’ – but still: this is not a sentence you would find in The Devil in the Flesh.

What connects Radiguet’s asymmetrical novels is, first, a general indifference to any kind of capacious, much less panoramic, representation of society or history. In depicting wartime The Devil in the Flesh zeroes in on a tiny margin of it; in depicting a certain type of high society Count d’Orgel’s Ball is mostly concerned with one particular couple and their respective interest in a young outsider. In his notes for the second book Radiguet described his ambition to write ‘a novel in which psychology alone is “novelistic”’ because ‘the “social” aspect [is] a useful atmosphere for the display of certain feelings but not a picture of society … The setting does not count.’ With this mostly unremarkable distinction between the psychological novel and the social novel, Radiguet plainly means to mark territory off from Proust, and from the main line of the French novel. When a minor character in Count d’Orgel’s Ball is mocked for his vulgar eagerness to enter high society, the author’s diagnosis is succinct: ‘Had he read fewer 19th-century novels he might have been quite charming.’ Cocteau took a similar line in exalting Radiguet: he was ‘truer than Balzac’.

But what does it mean to be truer than Balzac? Radiguet’s disdain for the ordinary novel and Cocteau’s praise for Radiguet himself both appear to be directed at realism and its conventions. In this light, Radiguet’s achievement as a writer of the 1920s could be seen as a certain kind of modernism, in its retrenchment or withdrawal from the panoramic social ambitions of 19th-century fiction. But then in some of the basic facts of both of Radiguet’s novels we see the parentage of Balzac or Stendhal or Flaubert: the young amorous hero, the older married woman, the demolishing of illusions, the inexorability of failure. And so perhaps this way of making sense of Radiguet’s fiction rests on a false division. His novels were published in 1923 and 1924, but thinking of Radiguet in terms of modernist experiment is problematic. He was adored by Cocteau, but he was never really embraced by much of the Paris avant-garde, probably because his fiction is not particularly avant-garde.

On the contrary, as readers have noted, there’s a strain of classicism or conservatism in Radiguet. A novel as profane as The Devil in the Flesh is nonetheless written in a style full of well-turned maxims, sometimes to a fault: often Radiguet sounds like a 17th-century moralist. Count d’Orgel’s Ball was partly modelled on La Princesse de Clèves and its structure resembles that of classical tragedy. Radiguet’s terse, strict novels have in common a distance from – or lack of interest in – the obfuscations of much of the avant-garde of the time. There’s an element in them of what Mauriac saw as ‘lucidity’ and Cocteau called ‘calm’. It complicates the idea of Radiguet as a child writer that he should be praised for two qualities one doesn’t easily associate with childhood.

[*] Count d’Orgel’s Ball is available from New York Review Books in a translation by Annapaola Cancogni and from Pushkin Press in a translation by Violet Schiff.